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The U.S. Constitution's Twelfth Amendment: Creating the Electoral College

The Twelfth Amendment introduced the system of presidential elections, the Electoral College, which is still in force today — at least in theory. It was intended as an emergency fix for the 1804 presidential election after the two previous elections, held in 1796 and 1800, had gone badly wrong.

Electing the president prior to the Twelfth Amendment

The original arrangements for presidential elections are to be found in the unamended text of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. The arrangements were as follows:

  • Each state legislature appointed as many electors for that state as there were senators plus representatives from that state combined. Let’s take a hypothetical state with 12 representatives in the House of Representatives. This state would also have had two senators (because every state is entitled to two senators). So, the total number of electors for that state would have been 14.

  • The electors of each state met separately.

  • Each elector had two votes without differentiating between president and vice president.

  • The candidate with the most votes (provided they amounted to more than 50 percent of the total) became the president, and the runner-up became the vice president.

  • If no candidate obtained more than 50 percent of the votes, the presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives, and the Senate picked the vice president.

These original rules omitted all mention of political parties. The whole arrangement was undemocratic because the Framers didn’t trust the ordinary people to pick the president. Their naïve idea was that the electors would choose the best candidate to be the president and the second-best candidate to be the vice president.

Not surprisingly, the whole of this arrangement came unstuck as soon as it was put into practice in the first real contested presidential election in 1796.

Understanding the 1796 and 1800 U.S. presidential elections

In the 1796 presidential election, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the two main opposing candidates for president, ended up as president and vice president respectively. It’s just as if Jimmy Carter had become Ronald Reagan’s VP!

John Adams, a Federalist, got 71 electoral votes — more than 50 percent of the total — and Thomas Jefferson, a Republican or Democratic-Republican, received 68 electoral votes. Although Jefferson and Adams didn’t see eye-to-eye politically, Jefferson was sworn in as Adams’s vice president. What a mess! But worse was to follow.

The 1800 election was a rematch between Adams and his own vice president, Jefferson. To avoid a repetition of the same problem as in 1796, the political parties each nominated two candidates, one intended to run for president and the other for vice president. The Federalist ticket of John Adams and Charles Pinckney was confronted by the Democratic-Republican ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Jefferson and Burr won with 73 electoral votes each. It was well understood that Jefferson was the party’s presidential candidate and Burr his running mate, but the Constitution drew no distinction between candidates for the two offices. Each elector just had two equal votes.

Because neither Jefferson nor Burr had a majority, the choice of president was left to the House of Representatives. Here the contest was no longer between Jefferson and Adams but between Jefferson and his own running mate, Aaron Burr!

After 36 ballots and a lot of horse-trading, Jefferson was elected president and Burr vice president.

This chaotic election made an amendment to the Constitution a pressing necessity, and the Twelfth Amendment was duly ratified on June 15, 1804, less than five months before that year’s presidential election.

Impacting Future presidential Elections with the Twelfth Amendment

The Twelfth Amendment has stood the test of time, even though it still doesn’t mention political parties. It indirectly recognizes the existence of parties by providing that electors cast a separate vote for president and vice president.

So, it’s no longer a problem if a party’s vice-presidential candidate gets the same number of electoral votes as that party’s candidate for president — which indeed is what normally happens.

Some people criticize the entire Electoral College system as laid down in the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment, labeling it undemocratic.

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